“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
What does it mean to know why you live?
What does it mean to know the reason why you get up every morning?
What does it mean to know why you are alive?
It means that you have purpose. While meaning in life is an intrinsic matter – what you derive from what you do – purpose is what you do and why you do it.
Over the past year, as a part of a Gifted and Talented Independent Research Program, I have studied the development of purpose in life. I was drawn to this topic because of a fascination with how we find meaning and engagement in our daily lives. Even after developing my own theory of purpose development, speaking to experts all over the country, and reading dozens definitions and empirical studies, exactly what drives us all still eludes me. However, I often come back to one simple analogy that I encountered in William Damon’s “The Path to Purpose.” In it, Jean Piaget, the famed developmental scientist, was trying to get his students to understand equilibrium. He asked them, “If you fall in the water, what’s the best way to stay up?”
Flail. Thrash. Tread water. Scream. These are all viable answers. After all, the first thing they teach you in the pool is how to tread water. Yet Piaget looked at his students and exclaimed, “NO! You must swim and in a direction. You must move forward.”
The real question is, “Why? Why keep swimming?” When encountering the daily struggles of life, why not remain in one place? What is the point in pushing forward? As someone paralyzed by fear of the unknown, this question torments me. Yet this, as a researcher of purpose, is the question that changed my life. Analyzing the motivation behind my actions allowed me to find my passion and, therefore, confidence because I knew that my time was well spent in something that mattered to me. With a sense of purpose, I found direction and unity in my life.
Purpose, as defined by Damon and other experts, is an intention to accomplish something. It is the guiding force in our lives that pulls us through thick and thin. It is somewhat like a goal. In order for a purpose to be what is called a “noble purpose,” it has to have a positive impact on the world instead of a negative one. And it has to make your life feel meaningful. Your purpose can be anything you want it to be. It can change over the years, evolving with your passions. But it has to be you. It is broad enough to encompass everything you do.
Once you have a purpose, the best thing you want to do with your life, you have the why. And then, as Nietzsche said, you can find any how.
Yet we still find ourselves thrown into the water. Oftentimes, it’s storming and cold. There are sharks, and there’s probably a rip current swirling around you, too. You feel alone. You can’t scream anymore. You can’t feel your fingers let alone your toes.
You’ve long ago stopped asking how to survive and now wonder why you should even try.
The answer is: because your life matters.
Why does your life matter? Because you’re making it matter. You’re swimming despite the ache in your bones and the pit in your stomach. You’re smiling past the pain, and you’re making the world a better place.
One thing I’ve learned is that anyone can develop a purpose – no matter how young or how old. Sometimes it just takes a spark: a cause that matters to you, a person whose story touches you, or a place that inspires you. If you follow your heart and step into this world of opportunity, then, before you know it, you will have a great and beautiful purpose, and it will be your reason to live.